Monday, April 26, 2004


‘Deepest darkest Africa’ has always exercised a remarkable fascination on the Europeans, ever since ancient Geeks like Herodotus speculated on the existence of lands beyond the Nile and Strabo described the African pygmies. This fascination soon transcended the speculative and entered the realms of the exploitative, where multitudes of hunters would capture African animals for slaughter in the Colosseum or to ornament some rich Roman’s garden.
Spectacles of this nature are said to have originated around 275 BC, when Roman legions returned from the wars against Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, in the tow of 145 African elephants that were part of this great king’s war engine. Rome had never seen elephants before although they had been used to devastating effect on Roman soldiery by Pyrrhus at Tarentum. The Romans’ sense of revenge overcame their sense of scientific curiosity: they ordered each and every one of the hapless African-Epirotan beasts to be hamstrung.
One of the most unkind and disgusting pastimes of the Romans (apart from throwing Christians to the lions) and the Byzantines, was the organised slaughter of animals for pleasure. Animals that would never encounter each other in the wild would be pitted against each other as spectators indulged in their appetite for gore, revelling in seeing a gentle giraffe being pitted against a bear from Asia or a fighting bull from Iberia or, very often against the emperor. The emperor Gordian I, for example, counted 100 giraffes among his public kills.
After the fall of the Roman Empire and the coming of the Dark Ages, 1,000 years passed before the next giraffe appeared in Europe. The Crusades against Islam had caused the West to re-engage itself with the rest of the world and enter the fray of international politics. In 1486, the Mameluke sultan of Egypt, Qait Bey, sent a young female giraffe to Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence, in order to “entertain good relations with the Christians.” At the time, the giraffe had been forgotten by the west and the arrival of such an outlandish creature, a “cameleopard” as it was called, created a great sensation.
What was unknown until last century however, was that Europe’s relationship with the giraffe was much more ancient than ever expected and that the place where this relationship took place, was actually in Greece, in times prehistoric, far beyond the reach of the father of history, Herodotus. The marvels of modern science now place the original homeland of the giraffe, or to assume Don Burke of Burke’s Backyard fame predilection for Latin terms, Giraffa camelopardalis, a relative of the camel and the horse, both ancient and noble steeds, on the vast plains of Central Asia. Aeons before the Huns, the Kumans, the Petchenegs, the Avars and the Turks embarked on their own migration into the west, the Camelopardalidae, the ancestors of the giraffe, embarked on an epic migration of their own, crossing down into the Iranian plateau.
From there, they seem to have split into two groups. One of these crossed the Fertile Crescent, descended through Arabia and ended up in the Abyssinian highlands where they remained, evolved and multiplied throughout Africa. The second, dissident group, instead of heading for the south, took the more difficult journey through the Assyrian uplands, across the Armenian plateau until they came to Asia Minor. They seem to have flourished there and in the adjoining and then indistinguishable lands that later became the Aegean islands for quite some time. They did however, evolve differently from their southern cousins, remaining short-necked to the last. Last century, peasants from my father’s village in Samos, Mytilinioi, dug up a most mystifying skull. The whole area of Mytilinioi is a goldmine of fossils and the peasant’s plough has been throwing up remains for years. Yet the skull was unprecedented. It was only through painstaking research, much controversy and comparison of remains from China and Persia that scientists were able to ascertain that the skull was in fact the remains of a giraffoid, the only one to ever be found within the Greek borders. They named it aptly enough, Samotherium, the beast of Samos. Today, the grotesque skull is the unofficial mascot of the village, fittingly enough, as its populace are a rare breed, ever dwindling and in a state of living ossification.
Greece’s relationship with giraffes does not end there however. An Albanian slave from Kavala in Macedonia, one Muhammad Ali rose to be the head of the Mameluke army in Egypt and subsequently, between 1805 and 1849, to proclaim himself Sultan of Egypt, as a de jure but never de facto vassal of the Ottomans. Muhammad Ali had two dreams. The first was to modernise his sprawling empire. He did this by assiduously cultivating the Western Powers. His repeated requests for aides, advisers and scientists to modernise his country resulted in an immense transformation of Egyptian society. The second was to overtake the ottomans as the leaders of the Islamic World, by nibbling at the corners of the Turkic Empire.
In the first years of the Greek Revolution, the Ottoman sultan sought only limited military assistance from Muhammad Ali, fearful of bringing the huge Egyptian army of Sudanese slaves so close to Constantinople. That suited Muhammad Ali, as it became clear that the sultan could not win the war without him. The longer the sultan waited, the weaker he would be to deal with Muhammad Ali’s plans for independence. When the Egyptians were finally ordered to Greece in force in 1824, under the command of Muhammad Ali’s son, Ibrahim, they devastated the Peloponnese and it soon seemed that the Greek cause was doomed. The atrocities of the Egyptian soldiers against the Greeks caused a great outcry in Europe, especially in England and France with public opinion clamouring for the immediate intervention of the West to save the Greek Revolution.
In an effort to forestall any such intervention and to appease the west, Muhammad Ali reverted to a tried and tested method of diplomacy that had served him well in the past. He decided to send the rulers of England and France a token of ‘deepest and darkest’ Africa, which, he hoped, would engage the fascination and gratitude of the powers and induce them not to intervene in the Peloponnese.
To this effect, in 1924, he ordered the capture of two giraffes from Abyssinia. One of these was sent to England, where it died soon after arrival and failed to impress the English. The other was sent to France where after an arduous journey up the Nile, across the Mediterranean and Gaul, it was installed in June 1827 in the Jardin des Plantes of Paris. She became a sensation. Glamorous women imitated her with their hair styled high a la Giraffe and in the streets and salons, men wore fashionably giraffique hats and ties. Now remembered as a beautiful but vague legend, France’s first living giraffe, now stuffed at La Rochelle, was a national icon, the envy of Europe, the subject of songs and poems, music hall sketches and political allegories, the namesake of public squares and even a form of influenza.
Ultimately, though the giraffe fascinated Parisians until its death in 1845, it did not have the effect that its donor intended. Britain and France intervened on the side of Greece at the battle of Navarino in 1827, ensuring the creation of an independent Greece. It is unknown whether the Greek καπεταναίοι knew of price Muhammad Ali paid for France and England’s non-involvement, nor what they would have made of the Abyssinian descendant of the Greek Samotherium. Yet undoubtedly, the African craze sparked off by the arrival of the giraffe in Paris, which culminate in an orgy of colonialism and environmental degradation, has its unlikely roots in a redoubtable little people’s quest for freedom, in a land where once the giraffe reigned supreme.

first published in NKEE on 26 April 2004

Monday, April 19, 2004


It appears that when something is considered good, everyone wants to get in on the action. This is not more so true than in the case of Alexander ‘the Great.’ Regular readers of this paper would have explored over the years, various people’s implausible but not utterly impossible links with Alexander, from the Kalash tribes of Afghanistan to the Persians whose national epic, the Shahname has Alexander as a descendant of the Achaemenid Shahs of Iran. While their claims are tenuous, they cannot be dismissed. Alexander’s army did pass by those people’s lands and the Epigonoi, their descendants, remained a noticeable presence in Central Asia for hundreds of years. Surprisingly enough however, the desire of peoples to associate themselves with possibly the greatest general of all time, extends to regions that not only were never conquered by Alexander, but which have supposedly remained cut off from his world and cultural influence until quite recently. Thus, in Kenya there exists a tribe of warriors who claim proudly that they are descendants of Alexander the Great. This tribe, known as the “Turkana,” live around Lake Turkana, previously known as Lake Rudolph. One of the few tribes in Kenya to tenaciously cling to their ancestral customs, relatively untouched by modern civilisation, the Turkana live primitively by hunting and rearing livestock. Tall and slim, dressed in colourful, usually red cloaks, their throats adorned with beautiful necklaces, they carry hunting bows in their hands and stand proudly, almost reminiscent of ancient Greek warriors.
The Turkana believe that a white man, a European once visited their region. It was Alexander, or as they say in their language, “Emousoukout Lokingaren.” At that time the local tribes, especially those who applied themselves to animal husbandry, were fighting among themselves, the Turkana wanting to seize the livestock of the rival Saburu tribe. Suddenly, Alexander, a tall, fair-haired man appeared before them. He gave them courage and told them to stop fighting amongst themselves. The Turkana welcomed him as a god sent by the angels. According to their custom, they bathed him in milk, saying that God Himself had visited them. Alexander traveled around the region and was glad to be amongst the local people. Natives came from all around to see him. They worshipped him as their god, paid him great honours and eventually gave him various symbolic names. In one area he was called “Longor Kelae”, which means “the one with the black teeth,” (dental floss had not yet been invented.” In another area he was called “Ekengarakinan,” or “he one who helps.” After he had been with them for quite some time, they gave him the name “eroukouyiok”, meaning “ours.” When Alexander saw the extent of their veneration, he had to tell the people that he was not the god they believed him to be, but a mortal like them; someone who wanted to teach them and help them.
The elders of the tribe claim today that when Alexander first arrived, he carried a long bow, which was large and impressive. He wore ornaments around his neck and ankles — the kind of ornaments which the Turkana still wear today and which they say are reminiscent of the greaves and breastplate worn by Alexander. He taught them how to make a small weapon, a javelin, which came to be called an “amalitei,” the spears of Alexander and he brought flour with him, hitherto unknown in those parts. He also left behind him something of his creed. He taught them of God and showed them ways of worshipping. Indeed, the Turkana believe that much of what they have and many of their customs come from the time when Alexander the Great was with them. The Turkana still mourn the time came for Alexander, the man who had taught them so many useful things, the man of goodness and hope, had to leave. They deeply believe he helps them even now, and look to the day when he will return and live among them again.
Several other versions of the Alexander myth exist. According to another tradition, a local Turkana woman was actually married to Alexander and gave birth to twins — one white, the other black. The black child brought the Turkana tribe into the world, whereas the white child returned to Europe.
Alexander “Lodekelaei,” which means the one with the white face, or the smiling face. is a potent and significant element in the lives of the Turkana. When things are not going well, they turn to the teachings of their elders, which are concerned with Alexander the Great, to find a solution. They have a distinctive pride in their origins as being so noble. Whenever they meet a Greek, they seize the opportunity to tell of Alexander's great successes. They love to show off the jewellery that decorates their bodies, their arrows and other things that they cherish and which go back to the time when Alexander the Great passed through their land.
How the myth was actually sprung is unknown. It is quite plausible that Coptic or Ethiopian missionaries and traders, whose cultures also are steeped in the traditions of Alexander, may have brought the story to the Turkana, which was then adapted to other purposes. The story could be a later creation, much like the Judaising hill tribes of Bengal have recently ‘re-invented’ themselves as Jews, or by English explorers and missionaries, intent on providing a European origin to those tribes they saw as more ‘noble’ ‘and civilised’ or even more romantically (and implausibly,) perhaps Alexander’s lost army of the Siwa Oasis managed to escape their sandy grave and penetrate into deepest darkest Africa. We shall never know.
Nevertheless, it says much for the need of humankind to lionise and deify outstanding individuals that the myth of Alexander, either as conqueror, civiliser or destroyer (the Iranians in a variant tradition call him the horned king or son of Satan) though quaint to some, persists today. Who knows? Had Alexander, who in his quest for superhuman status not only tried to conquer the world but seeking deification, grasped the horns of Marduk in Babylonia, had himself proclaimed the son of Ammon in Egypt and the son of Zeus in Greece, known of the Turkana tribe, a tribe beyond his reach and interest, he probably would have smiled, a typically benign, Olympian smile for them and all of his present day adherents.

First published in NKEE on 19 April 2004

Tuesday, April 13, 2004


What in the world is wrong with our United Nations General Secretaries? These august men, paragons of virtue and embodiments of the brotherhood of mankind have with their conduct, from the outset given us cause for concern. While certain countries, such as America and Germany deliberately undermined the UN’s predecessor, the League of Nations, (which League boasted remarkable the remarkable diplomatic achievements of the invasion of Czechoslovakia and Abyssinia) thus ensuring its ultimate failure, it appears that certain deep, dark and nefarious plans are being hatched to subvert the respect all citizens of the world have for the United Nations.
We don’t need to look far to see evidence of this. Each General-Secretary’s name since the institution of the United Nations has provided us with subtle hints that should have given the world cause of concern, yet they didn’t. Take Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold for instance. Is it coincidence that the world appointed a Dag to the Secretariat? How can a Dag inspire respect, let alone solve the world’s problems? The Congolese certainly did not think he could. That is why they arranged to have his plane blown out of the sky over Zambia in 1961. What a Dag.
But what about U Thant? U? you may ask. The jury is out on whether this reclusive Burmese diplomat even actually existed. Kurt Waldheim however, definitely existed. We know this because intrepid Nazi-hunters have dug up photos of this delightful man in Nazi SS uniform, in the backdrop of the brooding Dinaric Alps. This definitely inspires confidence in the UN. The jury is also out on Boutros-Boutros Ghali, my favourite UN secretary. Scion of an old and noble Coptic family, he was the only Secretary-General not to have confidence in the intellectual powers of the rest of the world, so much so that like James Bond, he felt the need to repeat his name twice, in case you weren’t intelligent enough to get it the first time.
The proof is conclusive. Somewhere, some relic of the Cold War is working to undermine the UN by providing us with ridiculous Secretary-Generals. The current Secretary-General seems to fit into the groove more so than any other. For Kofi Annan’s surname is so reminiscent of the Greek verb αυνανίζομαι (I masturbate) that one cannot shake off the suspicion that he is hell bent on proving that the United Nations in its entirety, is a complete wank.
Avnnan’s fourth re-draft of the solution to the Cyprus issue is a case in point. Not only is it ridiculous in its scope but also thoroughly disquieting in the method in which attempts were made to impose it. It is a document that legitimises the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, makes no effort to redress the wrongs of the past and if anything, seeks to strengthen the Turkish position in Cyprus and make Greek Cypriots pay for it as well.
The main articles of the Plan are a farce. Take main article (ii) for instance: “...Resolved that the tragic events of the past shall never be repeated and denouncing forever the threat or use of force or any domination by or of either side…” Yeah right. That is why the Plan does not call for the immediate withdrawal of Turkish troops from Cyprus and perpetuates a situation where Cyprus is not permitted to have its own army. The Plan reads like a punitive settlement agreement between litigants. Cyprus is to pay half the UN’s costs of maintaining a peacekeeping force on the island. There is of course, no question of penalising the invaders. While Article 8 pays lip-service to the demilitarisation of the island, so that there is a gradual reduction of armies “with the objective of total withdrawal…” this remains an objective. No timetable is set for its realisation. As well, Cyprus, who Avnnan would have us believe under his new Plan, would be a sovereign nation on par with all others, is prohibited from buying weapons and consequently, from defending itself from its enemies.
So much for sovereignty of ‘a nation.’ Indeed, the Plan, in Article 1(3) maintains the guarantor power status of the United Kingdom, Greece and Turkey, ensuring that in effect, Cyprus remains nothing more than a colony, a pawn in the diplomatic wrangling of these nations and a victim of their own ends. This is a far cry from the lip service paid to the Cypriot people being masters of their own destiny.
The affectations of brotherhood and reconciliation are also misconceived. Main article (iii) states: …”Acknowledging each other’s distinct identity and integrity and that our relationship is not one of majority and minority but of political equality, where neither side may claim authority and jurisdiction over the other…” How noble and democratic. Democracy, in case one forgets, has to do with acting upon the decision of the majority. Avnnan’s Plan, in recognising two equal sub-states in Cyprus, merely legitimises the illegal, criminal and racist regime in Northern Cyprus, which ethnically cleansed the north of its Greek character and perpetuates the tyranny of its rulers over its hapless people. The Avnnan Plan provides for the two Greek and Turkish sub-states to form a Federation, based on geography? Why is this so? Why must a minority be in a position to deadlock and make government unworkable? Is it so important to artificially enforce skewed and artificially created demographics? One would have thought that the way to reconcile and re-unify Cyprus was to permit the free passage and residence of all Cypriots throughout the island. By keeping them apart, Avnnan and his friends seek to perpetuate the mistrust and hatred created thus far. The Plan is racist in that it attempts to retain a Greek hegemony in the south and a Turkish hegemony in the north. It limits the right of Cypriots to live in their own country. Whatever happened to a Cypriot hegemony? Is it so inconceivable that Turks and Greeks are mature enough to vote for whoever they believe will represent them effectively regardless of race and where they live? This is not a country. It is apartheid enforced by an eminent African diplomat who should be ashamed of himself.
The rules for the self governing constituent racially based states are complicated and amusing. The Plan states that there shall be no hierarchy between constituent state laws and federal laws. Great. So we have a whole bunch of unenforceable laws that can be exploited at will by malevolent politicians. The status of boundaries however, is the height of irony. Certain roads are ‘Greek’ or ‘Turkish.’ If either side wants to use them, they must built overpasses or underpasses and circumvent them. Avnnan really does want us to avoid each other at all costs. Who knows, we might even make friends.
Avnnan also dictates to the Cypriot nation as to its migration policy. Greek Cypriots are not permitted to allow the level of Geek nationals in their constituent state to exceed 5% of the total number of Greeks while the Turks have similar restrictions. No provision is made however for the illegal sojourn of Turkish colonists. Similarly, while he pays lip service to compensation for those who have been dispossessed of their lands, “…compensation to be paid in guaranteed bonds and appreciation certificates.” he does not say who is responsible for payment of compensation. Conceivably it will be the federal government, in which case, Cyprus is paying the costs of the Turkish invasion itself. Oh well done mister S-G.
Avnnan also imposes obligations on the Turkish Cypriot state to respect the rights of the Greeks of Karpassia to education and culture. Yeah right, like they have respected them for the past thirty years. Give us a break.
The only good news is that the Plan imposes upon Cyprus the obligation to support Turkey’s accession to the European Union and some of the article’s operation, such as demilitarisation are actually contingent upon Turkey’s accession.
The Avnnan Plan is thus a threatening finger pointed at the Greek people. It is a United Nations that finally has removed the veil of peace and brotherhood and like its predecessor, has unmasked itself as a tool of foreign interests. This Plan is the Western World’s punishment to the Greek people for having the temerity to suffer so much. NO redress of wrongs is offered. No dignity or a sense of nation is offered. Unlike the fervour to liberate Kuwait and ‘liberate Iraq,’ the United Nations seems it fit to renege on its resolutions condemning the invasion and actually attempt to impose an unjust solution on a long-suffering people, in the interests of.. God knows what. The Cypriot people really do have the icy fingers of the international community at their throats with certain nations threatening sanctions against Cyprus if it does not accept the Plan.What a betrayal by our ‘friends.’ This is the praise we receive for constantly abiding by international law and human decency. Kofi Avnnan has proved once and for all the might equals right and that the poweul protect and reward aggression and injustice. Listen Avnnan mate, stop picking on small peoples and if you think that the peace loving people of Cyprus will accept your ultimatum, take your hand off it mate. Freedom may be a long time coming but it does not make its taste lessen in sweetness. ΖΗΤΩ Η ΕΛΕΥΘΕΡΙΑ ΤΗΣ ΚΥΠΡΟΥ!


first published in NKEE on 13 April 2004

Monday, April 05, 2004


How was the Greek Revolution first proclaimed? Well, a group of silent, dignified and very tall ladies accompanied by a short old lady banging a tambourine (Bob Dylan’s grandmother?) swirled long red flags of revolt as they frolicked along the grasslands of Arcadia, around Bishop Palaion Patron Germanos, like little wood nymphs…. That is if you would have the Greek Olympic Committee stage the re-enactment. The recent ceremony for the lighting of the Olympic Torch was a travesty of what happens when nationalism, history and ambition are all mixed together in the crucible of one woman’s demented determination for self promotion, and in fact that of a whole nation.
From the outset, the ceremony was incredibly boring and featureless. A bunch of woman dancing around wearing white skirts and waving sheets does not hold much significance for me and I would daresay for the rest of the world. It was a purposeless ceremony that seemed to signify nothing, neither a paean to a people who once held the games, nor one to world peace and the brotherhood of mankind. It was unintelligible and strange, as if we had all snuck in uninvited to an ancient Mithraic cult ceremony, and were not explained the symbolism of each act. This is when haute parts company with couture and becomes just plain haughty.
Pointing this out to older relatives, I was inundated with a barrage of “Shhhh! This is our ancient culture. It is a part of us!” Well really. While people have been weaving national myths about themselves for centuries in order to develop a national consciousness, nothing in the Torch ceremony seemed to me to be remotely Greek. Indeed, the demented music, slow marching and frolicking reminded me of a Xena the Warrior Princess episode, without all the leather. I felt that I could not identify at all with the ceremony, neither as a Greek or as a world citizen. It left me completely cold.
This is probably because while a special place has been created for the Olympic Games in our national myth, this is a myth that still sits uneasily with us as the Games really do not form part of our heritage and culture. Sure they form part of our history, considering that Greek people invented and held games right up until the time of Theodosius, and they are a remarkable achievement. Nevertheless, the tradition of the games vanished. The noble ideals of competition and truce between warring states as well as bringing honour to a city and the gods through physical activity was completely extinguished in a way that other aspects of our ancient past, such as philosophy, never did. One’s national heritage comprises of those things left behind by one’s ancestors, which in some shape or form, continuously exist in one’s culture until the present. The Olympic Games, lost for almost two thousand years and resuscitated again as an artificial western construct is one of these.
It is therefore unacceptable to claim that the Torch lighting ceremony is part of our heritage. At the least, it could be argued that it forms part of our history. Wrong again. There never was a torch lighting ceremony in Olympia during the ancient games. As the eminent ancient scholar Dr Kostas Vitkos informs me, heralds were sent to each city bearing an olive branch, to announce the Olympic truce and call for participation. That to my mind is a more generous and noble gesture, a true tribute to the ideals of our ancient forefathers, than the tasteless, historically baseless pseudo-ballet that took place in Olympia last week. Our ancient Ολυμπιονίκες like the strongman Milo of Croton, who, attempting to split open a tree in an effort to show who strong and cool he was, got his hand stuck in a tree hollow and was devoured by wolves, must be turning in their graves. There certainly is no justification for pretending that a ceremony is part of our culture when it purports to historically re-enact an event that never took place. That is nationalism at its most crass.
If anything, the delight of the Greek people in watching the Greek government parody its ancestors and actually insult them by making up some strange form of ancient religious liturgy that bears no relation to the original or modern Olympic Games, is indicative of a people who are still not comfortable with their own identity. They need positive reinforcement to prove to themselves and the world that they are worthy and will even present false and tasteless ceremonies to the world to prove so. How immature. It is to George Papandreou’s credit that he gave such a ceremony its due respect. While all other guests wore suits, he chose to wear jeans. And why not.
It is also interesting how the organizers of the Torch ceremony chose to hijack an already important day in the Greek calendar in order to promote the Games, the 25th of March. This is a double insult to the entire nation. The 25th day of March has been set aside to celebrate the miracle of the Greek Revolution. Our ancestors who staked everything they had for freedom from foreign domination and founded the modern Greek state form part of our immediate heritage and their memories and achievements deserve to be celebrated and appreciated by their descendants without the ceremony being sullied by marketers and workshoppers, eager to exploit this very special day for their own ends. Our very own Consul-General’s 25th day of March message, which spends a great deal more time talking about the importance of the Olympic Games than that of our forefather’s sacrifices, is further indication of this misguided capitalization of the single key event in the formation of Modern Greece. At the same time, as Giorgios Papadakis of “Kalimera Ellada” fame was shocked to find out, many Greek youth do not even know why we celebrate the 25thof March, linking it with World War II or the junta. Considering government policy, this is no wonder.
Even more insulting is the fact that the organizers of the ceremony chose to hold their torch-lighting on the day which in the Orthodox Calendar, celebrates the Annunciation of the Virgin, one of the most important events in the Christian religion. Given that the Greek Orthodox faith is still the official religion of Greece, how can government officials, including the President of the Republic of Greece have the insensitivity to participate, during a religious holiday, in neo-pagan festivals in which hymns and prayers to non-existent deities are sung? The answer is, because decorum and tact will always be sacrificed on the altar of self-promotion and gain. A more appropriate day could have been chosen, one which does not overshadow other significant events and in which the ideals of Olympism, whatever they are conceived to be, could be celebrated of their own accord.
The Athens Olympic Games by most accounts will be an outstanding success. It is touching that they will return, albeit briefly, to their country of birth. However, we ought never to forget that the Games are no longer a Greek festival. Since their resuscitation by de Courbetin, they are an event that belongs to the entire world. As such, is it really worthwhile to sacrifice our own identity and precious historical memory for the sake of some kudos, begrudgingly given by the outside world? That would be, to my mind, hubris to say the least.


first published in NKEE on 5 April 2004